“It’s shameful. I don’t feel safe walking in my own neighborhood or even using this park sometimes. You can’t go more than few blocks without seeing people sleeping on the streets.” This was from a mom watching her son play baseball at the Adams Elementary school field on April 7. Right beside the field, next to the recreation center, was a homeless camp in a play area designed for young children.
Parks were on the April 4 agenda for the Normal Heights community planning group. Besides discussing possible solutions to issues with vagrants, the issue of needing more open park space was on the table.
Jim Baross, chair of the planning group, said, “We were told that [city parks and recreation] is trying various approaches; selected bench removals perhaps temporarily, new signs, et cetera. Having staff on sight with authority to curtail antisocial behaviors, and perhaps to run recreational activities would certainly help — an expense, though.”
I wasn’t able to get any further information about any planned bench removals from the city’s parks department. Or if bench removal from other parks has proved successful in the past.
In March local planning meeting notes, it was stated that the Rec Council had decided to take some action about Adams Park by removing and changing the layout of seating and tables to discourage camping in the park. It was also mentioned that the Adams Avenue Business Association had hired someone to help interact with the homeless along Adams Avenue.
Gary Weber, a retired city planner and member of the planning group, talked about park deficiencies in Normal Heights. He said that while Normal Heights should have 48 acres of park space, they only have about 8 acres. “The financing plan, also a city document, suggests that it would take $70 million dollars to meet the need. Those numbers are both accurate and unrealistic.”
Normal Heights has two main parks. The largest is Ward Canyon Park (3905 Adams Avenue). The other is Adams Park located next to Adams Elementary (3491 Adams Avenue).
A resident at the March planning meeting pointed out that more parks means more homeless in the neighborhood.
Baross put me in touch with Nancy Palmer. Palmer said that while the homeless are most visible at parks, she said they’re more concentrated in canyons, off-ramps, and alleys. Even though she has befriended many homeless people, she hesitates to let her kids walk alone near the park. “Which is unfortunate, because it is where they go to school, church, and access the rec center, all on one block.”
She called out the shelter system as useless and horrible. “You can't start to see if there's space in a shelter until nearly sundown and then realize there's no spot for a mother and small child in a shelter and have them figure out plan B in the dark, downtown. I have helped multiple mothers who were temporarily displaced and they would rather stay in the park than go downtown to try to get in a shelter and get turned away left to stay downtown with their babies. I'd stay in Normal Heights too.”
Chris Ward took office in December as councilmember for District 3 which includes Normal Heights. He is a member of the regional homeless task force. I asked him about how he would address a homeless person that finds living on the streets preferable to the shelter system. Ward said that while there will always be a small number of people who choose to live on the streets no matter what, most of the time it’s more a response to the services not matching their needs.
As far as remedies to address the problem with vagrants taking over parks in Normal Heights, Ward mentioned the special city council forum held in March to address the homeless crisis citywide. Ward followed up the forum with a memo to the mayor that included more than a dozen strategies. “I'm particularly interested in exploring opportunities for adaptive reuse and nuisance property abatement. Adapting existing buildings is much cheaper and quicker than the process for an entirely new development.”
Other suggestions Ward offered up included building affordable housing on surplus public land, relaxing rules to make shelters more palatable, identifying safe overnight parking for those living in vehicles, and implementing care zones throughout the city. Ward recommended halting citations of homeless encampments and forgiving outstanding penalties.
On April 5, a city council subcommittee voted to form a select committee to work on the homeless problem. The committee will be composed of four councilmembers and will have a 12-month long term, beginning in July 2017.
I touched base with Kelsey Kaline from the Regional Task Force on the Homeless to see how the annual homeless count in Normal Heights from 2017 differed from 2016. She said she can’t speak to this until April 20 when their report is released. “As of our count in [January] 2016, we had 4,940 people across the county [unsheltered]. There was one individual and one tent counted in Ward Canyon Park which is located in census tract 18. Our count only occurs from 4 a.m. to 7 a.m. on a single night in January though. Last year we saw a large increase [56 percent] in the number of tents/hand-built structures across the region and in the city. We have not analyzed park spaces specifically since our count focuses on census tract levels but the visibility of homeless has certainly increased.”
According to the city’s report in March, there were 8,692 homeless in the San Diego region in January 2016. Even though San Diego is fourth in the nation as far as the number of homeless, it is 22nd as far as federal funding. Add to this a three percent rental vacancy and the city characterized it as the “perfect storm for the region’s lowest income community members.”
Major goals for the city include getting newly homeless people off the streets as quickly as possible and dramatically increasing the housing supply.